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The Connection Between Childbirth and PTSD

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 4/18/2011

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which a person experiences strong symptoms after a devastating experience. The connection between childbirth and PTSD has not been extensively researched, but many mothers report PTSD-like symptoms after a traumatic labor or delivery.

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    How Childbirth Can Cause PTSD

    When you think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you probably assume that it's caused by a violent event, such as witnessing an accident or a killing. Believe it or not, PTSD can also be caused by childbirth. The connection between PTSD and childbirth is not well studied, and most of the information on the topic has been taken from case reports rather than full-scale studies. This is one reason why physicians may overlook cases of PTSD caused by childbirth. These case reports show that PTSD usually hits after a painful or complicated childbirth, where the laboring woman believes that she or her baby might die. Even if both mother and child emerge healthy, the woman is still at risk of PTSD. Keep in mind that PTSD symptoms may not appear until months after a trauma, but it can set in immediately as well.

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    Symptoms of PTSD in New Mothers

    When new mothers have a difficult labor or delivery, it is important to look out for signs of PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD in new mothers include frightening flashbacks, overvigilance towards the baby or towards others, scary nightmares, and intentional avoidance of topics related to the childbirth process or to their personal experiences with labor and delivery. Some women with PTSD also report feeling numb, easily angered, severely depressed, socially isolated from their peers, and unable to fall asleep or stay asleep (insomnia).

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    How Common Is PTSD After Childbirth?

    A nonprofit maternity care group called Childbirth Connection put out a report in 2008 that was published in the Wall Street Journal. The report explored the experiences of 900 postpartum women and suggested that 9 percent of U.S. women who have recently given birth have met the criteria for PTSD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and 18 percent had at least some symptoms. Although PTSD is far more common than expected, it is still less common than postpartum depression, which the National Institute of Mental Health maintains affects about 15 percent of mothers. (Note: Some women may experience both post traumatic stress disorder and postpartum depression simultaneously, but each of these could be experienced separately as well.)

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    Risk Factors for PTSD

    What are the factors that put you at greater risk for experiencing PTSD after childbirth? Women who have PTSD are reported to have had a higher rate of medication interventions during labor and to have felt more helpless in what they viewed as threatening surroundings. In addition, According to the Journal's report, women who have experienced sexual abuse or other serious trauma, are at increased risk of experiencing PTSD after childbirth.

    If you feel that you have experienced PSTD due to a traumatic childbirth, consider getting therapy to help with the symptoms. Childbirth and PSTD may be intimately related, and researchers continue to find out more about the relationship between the two.

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    References

    Psych Central. "PTSD After Childbirth." http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/08/08/ptsd-after-childbirth/2716.html

    Womens' Mental Health. "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Following Childbirth." http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/posts/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-following-childbirth/

    Emax Health. "One In 10 Women Suffer PTSD After Childbirth." http://www.emaxhealth.com/1357/one-10-women-suffer-ptsd-after-childbirth